31 July 2011

Tomato Soup and Jiu Jitsu

I actually wrote this a while ago, wasn’t sure what to do with it, and have decided to put it here, but I suspect it desires some context. I do, at any rate.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a ground-fighting sport (for those unfamiliar, it bears a faint resemblance to wrestling but it’s much more—in my humble opinion—elegant). It utilizes some elements of wrestling, but is far more versatile in its rules and movements and permits pragmatic elements such as the use of clothing and grips to achieve advantage (a thing not permitted in traditional wrestling).

It is an intriguing sport, which has a great deal of real-world application which is something I like in any kind of athletics.

If you prefer a visual explanation here’s a clip of a match, for additional context:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Demo

If not, the following is my attempt to talk about my interests in cooking and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu…no, not in succession. Concurrently.

Recently I decided to take some oft-repeated good advice and bring a notebook to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ hereafter, for efficiency) class so that I could track my progress and remember to remember things. But I was in a hurry. So I grabbed the first thing I could find, which happened to be one of my many recipe notebooks.

I’m not the most naturally organized creature, so I have recipes written everywhere—in moleskine notebooks, in spirals, on random sheets of paper and even on the backs of grocery receipts. I know where the recipes are even if no one else does. Many of these scrap sheets of paper are covered in the carnage of cooking: a splatter of tomato juice on the edge of this page, and a smudge of garlic on that one.

That’s all good and well. I hope the same thing happens with the BJJ half of my notebook. I expect there will be sweat smudges and haphazardly written notes, jotted down by tired fingers and an exhausted arm. Notes that probably look like nonsense to anyone else.

The fact is that cooking and BJJ are far more suited to the same notebook than anybody might think. And, no, not just because BJJ makes you hungry. It’s because cooking starts awkwardly (measure, check recipe, pour, check recipe, stir---but don’t stir too hard! Don’t overcook it! Precision!) but eventually it sinks in and you can do whatever you want with it. You can deviate from the recipe and find a way that suits your skills and tastes. I hardly measure spices anymore, because I know how I like my spices. The more I cook, the less I need to look at a recipe. I know why they write all those tedious steps down—I know what they’re for—and I know what to do with it all and what not to do. The baseline has been established, and from there—I get to enjoy myself and make the recipe my own.

This is an awful lot like BJJ. The moves we learn on the floor we practice step by step. We have to break our bodies into the sport, like breaking in new shoes for running. It feels awkward at first. Uncomfortable. Precision is important. Details are vital. It MATTERS that you don’t put your arm there, or that you DO keep your elbow tight—however little it makes sense at the time—just like it matters that you don’t forget to add the salt (to almost any recipe ever).

As much as the details matter, though, there is a point at which the logic BEHIND the details sinks in. The purpose in the precision becomes clear and suddenly the move stops being a series of steps and becomes a smooth, instinctive thing all its own. Even beyond that, each choke, armbar, triangle or escape stops being its own individual move and starts being—well—like ingredients actually. You use which ones you need and, if that doesn’t work, you change it up, maneuver, experiment, find out which ingredients flow together and which don’t. The point is, the drilling and detail put these ingredients at your disposal. Then you have the baseline—the right muscle memory—and you get to enjoy yourself and make it your own.

Just don’t give up or throw the whole thing (out).

P.S.  The required definitions:

Armbar: A movement or armlock which hyperextends the elbow joint. The intent in a match is to cause the opponent to "tap out" (give up). 

Choke: Yes we all know what this is, but there are several different kinds available to you in BJJ, based on which ingredient is most suited to your circumstances and tastes.

Triangle: A kind of choke which is executed with the legs (what?! Yes, the legs) forming a 'triangle' around the opponents neck in which part of the choking is accomplished by the position of their own arm. Good for long-legged types.

Escape: If any of the above are being executed on you, this is what you do. Sometimes an escape is just pure logic, but other times it's a series of movements that only makes sense after you've done it many, many times.

(This is why it's good to like and respect the people you grapple with...you will be hurting each other on occasion)

Review of Robin McKinley's Chalice: Part 2

Now a more concise and directed review of the book Chalice, which I have heretofore been using to explain some of my irritations with the current trends of YA literature:

Rough Summary:
Mirasol is a former beekeeper in a small demesne (feudal region ruled by a Master) who has been thrust into the position of “Chalice.” Chalice is second-in-command over the demesne, the first-in-command being the aforementioned Master. In this region the land is very much alive and the Chalice (Mirasol) has a responsibility to keep the land whole and well with the aid of the remaining eleven members of the ruling circle. She mixes cups for meetings, the only peculiarity being that unlike former Chalices, she mixes the cups of meeting with honey and uses honey in the balms that help heal breaks in the land.

The former Master died before Mirasol became Chalice. Now the younger brother is called upon to be Master, but he had been sent away to become a priest of Fire. Becoming a priest of Fire is a process that eventually makes one no longer human. The younger brother is almost all Fire now, and this is very dangerous and difficult. On first meeting, he accidentally touches Mirasol and causes an unhealing burn which goes straight to the bone.

The subsequent story consists of Mirasol learning to be a good “Chalice,” the Master learning to once again be human (and not to burn his people or his land) and their efforts to keep the land whole and safe during an extremely tumultuous time. Some peripheral characters have aspirations for power which will devastatingly disrupt the ‘earthlines’ which are much like the nerves and veins of the land.


This isn’t a flashy plot-point type of story. It’s more of a “this is what my life and duties are, this is what they used to be, this is how the two intertwine and here are some examples therein.” It’s a softly, sweetly told story. The contrast between Mirasol’s honeyed perspective and the descriptions of the Master’s charred and flickering frame is very interesting.

Mirasol is very much a Robin McKinley heroine, and the Master rings a similar tone as some of her heroes as well. Both have a quiet strength and an unyielding sense of duty. Mirasol is very unexpectedly called upon to be the Chalice and it is very bewildering work for her, but she has a steady persistence which stands in stark contrast to the showy, haphazard methods of so many YA heroines.

There is a climax of action, but it will not satisfy anyone who is reading this book for the sake of action, nor someone whose main thrill in a book is the show-down with the big bad. Read this for beautiful prose--lovely for the mouth to say out loud--for an intriguing perspective on bees and land and fire, for an unusual and richly-built world, and for a gentle, subtle hint of romance.

The narrative does (as I mention in my previous blog-posts) meander, but if you’re a McKinley fan, that’s not going to be altogether surprising. If you aren’t a McKinley fan, then this is NOT the book I would advise you to start with. I would advise either Outlaws of Sherwood, or The Blue Sword. This one is definitely less concrete. The very edges of the story are quite hazy, and McKinley doesn’t give you a whole lot of explanation such as she does in her more traditional, linear stories.

There was one narrative device which I think was slightly overused here (because I began to take note of it, and I wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been too frequent): The book is almost entirely internal to the point that even when there is dialogue Mirasol will speak briefly:

“Hello,” she said. She did not say (XYZ), however.

This happens often, that the narrative informs you of what Mirasol would say, or could say, but does not.

Good book. Had to take a star away so as to distinguish between this and my all-time-read-it-a-dozen-times-favorites. A lovely story, with elegant writing..

Some favorite quotes:

“The flavor of the honey filled her mouth; it felt as if it were seeping through the skin of her mouth and tongue, into her blood, running through her body with every beat of her heart”

There was another pause. “Mirasol,” he said; she looked at him, puzzled. “Mirasol is your name. I cannot…remember mine. In Fire I was Azungbai.”

“Liapnir,” she whispered. “The last Master’s younger brother’s name was Liapnir, the younger brother he sent away to the priests of Fire.”

“Liapnir,” he said. “Liapnir would save Mirasol if he could”

“Perhaps fire runs in our blood”
(-The Master)

“The lines of his face seemed strangely mutable, as if they flickered, almost like flames”

“I am blacker than most of the Fire priests, because there was more of me to burn”
(-The Master)

29 July 2011

Review of Robin McKinley's Chalice: Part 1.2

More on the book Chalice and on the author Robin McKinley

Things that could make a person not want to read this book:

1. The story sort of floats from event to event—or, more accurately, from thought to thought—being roughly linear (in that it doesn't run backwards), but it frequently circles back to tell you what happened 'before' or 'in the interim', while being also  a bit hazy on time and details of its passage.

2. McKinley feels no need to explain herself. She expects you to learn by immersion. I respect the ever-loving daylights out of that, but not everyone is me, and I won’t deny that you have to—y’know—think. Fill in the gaps between what the author gives you.

3. Her wording and somewhat meandering narrative style can be confusing if you’re not willing to pay attention. I know that sounds accusative, but everyone wants a “zippy page-turner” which is a decided loss for us and for things that are rich and slow (like honey!!!) You really do want to have a marked affinity for her particular thought processes and prose, though. I can’t recommend her to everyone.

Now that I’ve given some criticism, here’s a continuation of the good stuff, to marry up with the previous post:

Secondly (since there was already a firstly in the other post): Beauty and Handsomeness are NOT the relevant characteristics of McKinley’s protagonists. In plenty of cases they are not characteristics at all. In fact, physical features aren’t terribly important unless they are ones that isolate (such as Aerin’s paler skin and red hair denoting her Northern origin, or Harry’s height, making her awkward and lending nothing in the way of beauty—examples from the Hero and the Crown and the Blue Sword respectively. Even Rosie’s “gifted” features in Spindle’s End are implied to be more bizarre than beautiful). I mention this because McKinley’s books fall more-or-less into the YA Lit category, and YA Lit is flooded with novels that put an inordinate emphasis on physical features and physical attraction.

Thirdly: In McKinley’s books: Bombast is not equated to strength. Sarcasm is not equated to strength. Masculinization is not equated strength. And feminism is not derisive towards feminine characteristics. Women characters are liable to be quiet and polite, or wild and rude; homebodies, or restless beings; beautiful or plain. The character Aerin cooks up fire-protectant recipes…and fights dragons (The Hero and the Crown). Mirasol’s a beekeeper and second in command over her province (Chalice). Harry (The Blue Sword)…well Harry was a straight-up fighter (and yes, she’s my favorite), but a somewhat baffled and reluctant one at first.

McKinley makes a sufficiently broad assertion that she writes about “girls who do things.” She doesn’t say “girls who do traditionally masculine things.” It’s girls who do all manner of things—often as a result of it being a duty, as opposed to some aimless rebellious princess syndrome (although that happens sometimes too). It’s the difference between an actual story, with actual characters (McKinley’s), and a reactionary story with reactionary characters, (so many others these days).

Now, due to the fact that I am going on and on about Robin McKinley, one may get the impression that she is my favorite author. She is not, although she is high on the list. She is talented and worthy of glowing reviews in her own right, however it is somewhat by comparison that I praise her so heartily now. She is a different caliber of writer than most of her Young Adult Literature peers and I think readers have lowered their expectations to the point that they’ll accept really pathetic prose so long as the story ‘reads fast’ or has reasonable amounts of sexual tension between the two leads (because that does seem to be the trend, doesn’t it?) I’m not saying that there aren’t other exceptions, but Robin McKinley is the one with which I’m most familiar.

She also manages to do another trend-ignoring thing: She writes in third person most of the time. If you are a YA reader of any kind and you are sick to the back teeth of bland, indistinguishable first-person narratives, then you owe it to yourself to sit down and read something in elegant third-person.

People seem to choose first person because it give them the opportunity to:
A: Use slang and be highly informal and idiomatic
B: Give a sense of intimacy and immediacy—especially if it’s in first-person present tense, a method which Suzanne Collins has popularized via Hunger Games.
C: Tell you exactly what the protagonist is thinking at all times instead of leaving you to guess by context and atmosphere.

Now understand, I do not disapprove of first-person narrative…but I think it takes an absolute master to accomplish it with any degree of finesse. Most authors seem to use the first person as a venue to see all things occurring. But, in reality, individual voices and points of view are so distinct, that a real character isn’t actually going to sit there and take note of all the details you want them to take note of! They’re going to miss some crucial stuff! They’re not always going to be insightful about the things you want them to be insightful about. Their moods will change, causing their narrative to change tone while still clearly belonging to them. That is HARD TO DO. I just don’t think many people do it well.

Right now, that’s all I have to say about that. Traditionally formatted review to follow.

22 July 2011

Review of Robin McKinley's "Chalice": Part 1

Review of Robin McKinley’s Chalice

This is meant to be a book review, but will also consist of the reasons I so appreciate Robin McKinley as an author. It will come in bits and pieces as I read.

To Start:

1. I love McKinley’s affection for the ordinary: Honey and beekeeping in Chalice, Robin Hood’s mediocre skills in Outlaws of Sherwood, the different words for tents in The Blue Sword, Aerin’s slow, slow, methodical path towards getting the right fire-protectant recipe in The Hero and the Crown.

     (Just like when it took me a few tries of making Khorma and Saag before I got them the way I wanted them: more garlic, lime juice, not too much cream of coconut lest it be too sweet, and half ricotta, half cream for the Saag).

     Now, I haven’t read Sunshine because I’m not too keen on vampire books, but as I understand it, the protagonist is a baker. Man I love that. It's the little things in life!

      Heroics are not spontaneous...they are more often born of tedium than other authors are brave enough to mention. Preparation. Practicalities. Hard work. I love a good display of plain, hard work in literature.

Furthermore McKinley points out, not only the beauty of the mundane, but its marvelous practicality. In Spindle’s End, it is mentioned early on that the magic of the land is mischievous (likes to turn things into other things at random) and in the wealthy houses if one says “Bread oblige me” instead of the more common “Bread stay bread” the magic is likely to play tricks on you by taking liberty with your fanciful wording. Keep it simple, ladies and gentlemen!

So it is in Chalice, that Mirasol—who I have only just met—has been selected for a highly sacred, highly magic-drenched position in her demesne (Country? Province? No, a little smaller in scale, I think). This position requires her to hear the land and mend it when it is broken or ailing, (What an utterly gorgeous idea for a chronic anthropomorphizer such as myself!) and while she has many traditional incantations upon which she may call, it is her simpler, more instinctive words which are simultaneously effective, and evocative of her love for the land of her people.

(Love of land—no not generic tree-hugging, that’s different—but deep “this is my land!” affection for what’s under one’s feet...it's a beautiful, beautiful thing. It makes me think of the verse in the book of Jeremiah “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord")

Below a short summary of the scene which displays some of Mirasol’s duties as Chalice:

“Broken, wept the earthlines, broken, broken”


(Mirasol mixes spring water---the water the local earth knows—herbs, and a certain kind of honey and gives it to the land like a salve, then Mirasol says simple things and lullabies from her childhood)

“Silence and peace, quiet and calm….sleep, my little love, sleep, my little one. Sleep is sweet and love is sweeter but honey is sweetest of all”

(Before Mirasol was called into the position she was a beekeeper, so she uses honey for everything)

So that is where we find our protagonist Mirasol: dealing with a deeply saddened, broken land (it being her job to keep it whole, as I understand) while the Master of the Land, with whom Mirasol must work hand-in-hand, is a man who has been unexpectedly called back from fire to take up the position of Master. (No, not easy-to-deal-with, cool x-men-type fire. His skin sears to the bone if touched and the color of him is that of something charred beyond use). It is not known whether he is capable of caring for the land in his present state, but Mirasol is determined to do her duty, and so is he.

More to come.

21 July 2011

Why The Bad Fosters More Talk Than the Good

Regarding things that are good to have but not always fun to explain. Misery loves company because misery likes to talk.

So we have this here Joy. Happiness. Whichever-word-for-a-thing-you-have-no-interest-in-complaining-about. It’s the ideal. The sought-after thing. And yet it seems to be a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ that a happy artist must be in want of a tragedy. There exists this notion that misery causes inspiration to surface where happiness has made it so unnecessary.

Legitimate? Maybe not entirely. But much as I would like to argue against this depressing thought, I don’t know how effectively I can.


Because I love dark, melancholy music. My favorites stories have an element of the tragic in them. And I love rants Ranting is just seven kinds of fun. I have SO many rants. When addressing a PROBLEM or a FAILING I often feel much more emphatic, effective and eloquent. If something makes me happy, well…

“I LOVED that movie. It was SOOO good. The characters, the scenery, the poignancy…augh! Man!”

“Yeah, I totally agree”

Now see how quickly that conversation ended? All my favorite bloggers are lamenting something, or mocking something. Rare is the day that I come across something that says “I love this day. What beauty and fun. Flowers!” and think to myself “I MUST read on!” But snark and derisive satire will get me every time. Moth to flame, really.

Bless me, I need a song to illustrate:

"לכתוב את העצב זה פשוט,

לכתוב את הכעס עוד יותר,

לכתוב אכזבה אני די מצליחה,

על אהבה בלי בעיה,

רק על השמחה עוד לא יצא,

ועד שלא יצא, אני אשאר עצובה"

To write sadness, that’s easy

To write anger, even easier

To write disappointment, I’ve already succeeded

And about love, no problem

Only joy hasn’t come out yet

And until it does, I’ll still be sad

Avigail Roz knows what she’s talking about. Anger and ranting are wordful.

I suppose that’s because happiness is basking. When the sun hits you. The sigh of contentment.

Joy (ironically) by being less definable, is more concise. Joy is that part of the book where the author knows better than to drown you in detail. She merely says:

“They sat quietly, awash in the beauty of it. There was no need to sully the thing with talk”

(In case you'd like to hear what Avigail Roz sounds like with her lovely, lovely voice--though it's not the song I quoted since I couldn't find that: Here's the song: V'ulai--"And Maybe")